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Almost 8 months ago, I introduced encouraged my team members to follow Stack Overflow so that they can read questions, help others, and build their skills. But now this has gotten out of hand. I have a team of 5 developers, and three of them make at least 150 points on average,each. (This is mostly in the office hours ranging from 9 to 6)

The issue is that the team sits remotely. They are in a different country and in a different time zone, so I can't physically be there to keep an eye on them and stop them from doing it. I am seeing the decline in productivity, as well as quality.

For instance, the impact I am seeing is couple of missed deadlines in the past month, almost double number of bugs in the iteration as compared to previous ones. Complexity level has remained same for the tasks, but it is just the productivity and quality which are going down.

It seems that they are somewhat addicted to Stack Overflow. I don't/can't ask the network team to block Stack Overflow, since that will hamper the others as well. I have asked them repeatedly to stop contributing on Stack Overflow.

Please don't take me wrong, I don't want them to stay away from Stack Overflow, (I was the one who encouraged them to participate on Stack Overflow, and created my account as well) but I just want them to keep it in a reasonable limit.

I should also add that I have conveyed my concerns informally and formally via email and have told them that this behaviour would reflect on their bi-annual reviews.

How can I get them (or force them) to concentrate on work and get away from Stack Overflow?

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If you don't want to micromanage, why are you looking at how many answers they're posting on SO rather than whether they're hitting other metrics (like stories produced if you're running a scrum team)? –  NotVonKaiser Jun 19 at 20:24
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Do they have a local boss in the remote facility? –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 21 at 11:49
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comments removed: Comments are intended to help improve a post or seek clarification. Please don't answer the questions in the comments. These can't be easily voted on as the best answers, and they may inadvertently prevent other users from providing real answers. Please see How should I post a useful non-answer if it shouldn't be a comment? for more guidance. –  jmort253 Jun 21 at 20:17
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possible duplicate of How can I make sure my remote workers are not slacking off? –  Ajaxkevi Jun 24 at 11:46

10 Answers 10

up vote 147 down vote accepted

I suggest you focus on the real problem which is that work is not being completed in a timely manner and there is a loss of quality.

If you feel they have too much free time to spend here, then assign them more work and more closely monitor the progress on the work assigned. When the quality problems happen, then send it back to them to fix and give them a tight dealine to fix it. If they still ignore you and productivity continues to drop and quality continues to suffer, then use your HR process to get rid of the deadweight

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This seems to assert that there's noting a manager can do to help their employees manage their time and avoid distraction, other than assign more work to the employee with shorter deadlines, measure progress more closely, and sack them if they fail to do it. Is that the intended assertion? –  Steve Jessop Jun 19 at 23:30
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Comments removed. I removed several replies to Steve's question, which was directed to the author of this post, from people who aren't the author. Only the author can answer that question; anybody else is speculating. Please don't try to hold a discussion in comments; use The Workplace Chat. –  Monica Cellio Jun 24 at 21:54

Here's the bottom line: If they're using it for work, why do you care? The issue should never be "these people are doing this thing I would rather not be seeing them do". That reeks of micromanagement. The questions you really should be asking are:

Are they not meeting deadlines that they were meeting before you introduced them to Stack Overflow?

If this is what's going on, have a discussion about this. You probably don't even need to bring up Stack Overflow directly; just say "look, you're not performing at the same level that you were performing a month ago, so whatever you've changed, let's change it back". I would be open to at least some feedback on this. Perhaps there is another reason entirely unrelated to Stack Overflow that they're lagging behind.

I feel as though I should add here that hearing the other guys out is not merely useful to "make them accountable in the future", it's useful because what you think the issue is might not actually be the issue.

Are they doing something like phone tech support (i.e. not dev work, which is what I assume at first) where their screens are captured during calls, and QA is watching them go to unapproved sites?

As above, have a discussion about this issue. It might seem like a "hey guys, don't go to Stack Overflow" issue, but what it is in reality is a "hey, don't let QA catch you going to Stack Overflow for unapproved purposes" issue.

Did a boss or something catch guys looking at Stack Overflow?

If this is the case, perhaps a meeting with the supervisor is the important bit. As a developer myself, I find the Stack Exchange suite of sites to be pretty far and away the most useful item out there, even more useful than Microsoft's own tech support. Really, the only time I think I ever find it less useful than anything else is when I'm using a 3rd party API that a significant portion of the population isn't using. Perhaps this supervisor needs to be sold on this.

Or if the supervisor is adamant, you unfortunately will need to meet with the team to advise them that policies have changed and they can't access Stack Overflow any longer. I would not mention the supervisor by name unless you feel like starting a turf war; just advise them of the situation, be empathetic, and move on.

Did someone potentially defame or otherwise smudge the good name of your company with a nasty or inappropriate response?

Stack Overflow's community is pretty good at catching and removing bad posts pretty quickly, but nevertheless, this isn't precisely a "don't read Stack Overflow" issue either. If this is the problem, you need to have a sit-down with the offender and advise them of the gravity of the situation. People can and do get let go from companies all the time for making the company look bad.

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There's (at least) two ways to manage productivity:

  • Work the job, not the hours. That is, you set an amount of work to be done by a certain date. Hopefully, what you've set is reasonable, and it's entirely up to your employees how they spend their working day. They can spend the day fishing for all you care, provided the work gets done at night.

Many of the answers here make an assumption along those lines. But the work isn't getting done, and you know why. So you're going to have to fall back to:

  • While they're on work time, they work.

It is not micro-management to assert this, especially as a means to the end of getting some work done. They're paid to spend time on the activities their employer assigns them. They're not (I assume) paid per bug fixed or per deadline met. (If they are then there's an easy possible solution -- they're getting fewer results per person, so you're automatically paying them less and can use the money to hire more people). So they should do what they're paid to do, and you should make them see this.

You've told them that contributing to Stack Overflow is not an appropriate use of work time. They've continued doing it. They should either clock off while contributing to Stack Overflow and make up the time elsewhere, or else they should keep from answering questions entirely, according to how flexible you are about working hours for these workers.

Be firm. If they were down the pub together several hours between 9 and 6 every working day because "they are somewhat addicted to alcohol", then I doubt you'd hesitate, and you wouldn't be accused of micro-management. Contributing to Stack Overflow when you've specifically told them that it's not work, is their personal leisure activity. It's not appropriate for them to pursue it primarily in office hours.

One thing you should avoid, if at all possible, is directly monitoring their Stack Overflow usage (like, emailing them to say you've checked their profile). Firstly, it's counter-productive, since it encourages them to be sneaky. They might even create second accounts. Secondly, it harms the trust between you and the remote team. They're not currently trustworthy, but your first attempt to get them back to trustworthiness should be to get them to monitor for themselves how much time they're spending, and see for themselves that it's too much.

Once you've tried that, if they really are "addicted" (perhaps not clinically, but have made a habit they find hard to break but would like to), then you should probably take specialist advice on that. I don't feel qualified to advise on the specifics of how to help them break such habits once they've seen the problem, tried honestly to address it, and failed due to some form of compulsion they can't overcome.

I do feel qualified to say that it's perfectly legitimate for you to take an interest in how the people you manage spend the time that they're paid to work for the company. Since you've taken an interest and determined that this needs to stop, then if absolutely necessary, you should make a disciplinary issue of it. People can't work remotely if they can't be trusted to actually work.

For what it's worth, I track my work time in chunks anyway in order to fill in a timesheet so the company can assess the internal cost of projects. Sometimes, I look at Stack Overflow waiting for something to run. When I realise I've spent a chunk of time on Stack Overflow long after the thing has finished running, I count it as a break, and I make up the time. This works for me because I work flexi-time, and it gives me strong incentives to look at Stack Overflow only in short bursts during work and longer periods outside work. If your team flexes then it might work for them (with their co-operation, of course). If their working day is a more rigid 9-6 with lunch break, then their abstinence from Stack Overflow use will need to be more rigid too. And if you're happy for them to spend an hour a day on Stack Overflow, that's fine too, but they should set aside the time, work it as productively as they can in terms of developing their skills via answering Stack Overflow questions, and be prepared to report to you what they've achieved and how long it took, like any other work activity.

Also, be aware that before it was Stack Overflow it was Facebook, before that it might have been Usenet or LiveJournal. There are always things that can distract people from work. Provided that they're not intentionally slacking off, just allowing themselves to be distracted, they will probably appreciate some rules provided they aren't too extreme ("you'll be fired if I catch you on Stack Overflow again" is too extreme). Rules forbidding this bad behaviour will help them discipline themselves to avoid falling into it, provided they aren't literally addicted.

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Whether you blame Stack Overflow or not, your team has learned that there are no negative consequences for missing deadlines nor are there benefits to meeting deadlines. They get whatever they have coming no matter what. This is the first problem you have to solve.

I suggest setting some shorter deadlines and providing consequences for them not being made. The key here is to set them before client or major project deadlines are missed. Waiting too long will just make you look bad.

You have some of the responsibility, but your team needs to learn that they can complete quality work on time or suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, you can't look over their shoulders and force them to work. They created the lack of trust, but you let them.

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I completely agree with the other answers here saying that the problem isn't Stack Overflow, it's the decline in the quality and quantity of work.

Having said that, because it's Stack Overflow, which is a potentially very valuable resource for their work as programmers, I'd like to suggest a slightly different approach than just treating Stack Overflow time as wasted, unproductive time, because strictly speaking, it's not - their time on Stack Overflow is probably making them better at programming and at communication in general, at a minimum.

I think what you need to do is act like a manager and prioritize for them. Priority #1 (and #2, and #3, from the sounds of things) is the actual work they're paid to do. Impress the importance of having them focus on work, and using the metrics you have in your question, you can point out to them that you know the work isn't getting done, which needs to change. Rather than trying to get them to stop using Stack Overflow, you need to get them to make their work take priority over Stack Overflow.

I've been there myself, with Server Fault. Thought it was the best thing since I discovered what fun alcohol could be, and went overboard, spending like 90% of my work time ServerFaulting, instead of working, which caused problems, and I ended up having to train myself and remind myself what Server Fault was really for - to help me do my job, and be a better sysadmin, not as something to do to kill time while I was at work, or instead of working. As a result, I'm still a pretty active ServerFaulter, but it doesn't interfere with my work.

I think putting the focus on getting the work done, instead of focusing on having them "not waste time on Stack Overflow" will get you much better results. Reminding them that they can do both, that it doesn't have to be work or Stack Overflow, will probably make it easier for them accept the change, rather than resulting a potential confrontation.

A couple things that helped me, that may help your team:

  1. Work pays the bills, not Server Fault, so when there's work to be done, I do work. When there's not, I can ServerFault.

    • When I get stuck on a problem, Server Fault's still my first stop. It is a work-related resource, after all, so I can treat it like one.
    • Since I don't do "smoke breaks" or "coffee breaks" every hour, like everyone else, I can do "Server Fault breaks" instead and spend 5-10 minutes ServerFaulting.
    • I spend a fair amount of time waiting on progress bars or scripts or the like to complete so I can do the next thing, and this is a prime time to go Server Fault, since I usually can't do my job while I'm waiting on a computer anyway.

  2. Server Fault, while fun, is a work/career-related resource.

    • That means its primary function is to help me through problems I experience at work, and make me a better sysadmin in general, so that's the part of it I focus on.

      • Badges, reputation, fun, and everything else I get out of it is just a bonus.

    • This realization helped me to use it more for work-related questions, instead of focusing on it for answering questions/rep-whoring.
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Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down.

First, full disclaimer: I feel that Stack Overflow is partially to thank for me landing my first programming job out of college. Since I got it, I haven't stopped contributing to it in my spare time.

No one in my office has complained about my usage of it, either. Then again, when I'm at work, I'm actually working. I'll address your point a bit later.

How can I get them (or force them) to concentrate on work and get away from Stack Overflow?

The main thing that this feels like is a lack of interesting things to do. If someone on your team is bored, they'll do other interesting things, or gravitate towards other interesting activities. For them, it may happen to be Stack Overflow.

Engage with the team. See what they think of the current project that they're working on, and see where their motivation/confidence levels are at. Get the chief reason as to why they're spending so much time at work not doing work by figuring out what it is they spend most of their time actually doing.

The increase in defects could also be due to any other number of reasons - extreme deadlines, not enough time for Quality Assurance to vet every nook and cranny, not enough unit/integration testing effort on their part to ensure that silly bugs don't make their way into the program. Ensuring that your devs write tests (well, write good tests) is a good way to reduce the overall number of defects introduced.

I can respect that you wish for productivity to increase, and that you have informed them that poor performance will reflect on their review. But perhaps there needs to be a little more legwork done in figuring out why the deadlines are slipping and what's really going on. Poor morale is also a motivation sapper.

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Might be as well the FIFA World Cup, the heat in summer or any other reason, so blaming SE/SO will probably make them switch to Twitter/Facebook/whatever..

You should focus on the projects and deadlines and maybe suggest that switching to a project based pay instead of an hourly is in discussion. Since the guys are probably reading this, (hello ;p) you can't just claim that, but really need to have something to back it up.

Also posting here is a question of time management. I see a lot of people here again and again, Joe Strazzere (even got the name right without looking), Vietnhi Phuvan (nope, this one not yet) or Jon Skeet, there are no stories about them struggling to get work done although they post a lot here. So maybe get some coach in, who shows them how to not spend too much time on answering a question or crossreading answers to find what you are looking for.

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Focus on the direct problems, which are loss of productivity and quality. This could happen because of the Stack Overflow, Wikipedia, Minecraft, Facebook, etc.

I'm not sure in what manner you normally communicate (video chat, phone, email, etc.), but I might ask something like this:

We've recently seen a general decline in our work quality and our ability to meet deadline. Does anyone have a idea why?

You might be surprised; it could be poor communication, difficult development tasks, vague requirements, or other factors you haven't even thought of.

Again, as I said earlier there is nothing unique about Stack Overflow in regards to your situation.


FYI I too am "addicted" to Stack Overflow ;)

But as much time as I have spent on it, I have saved even more because of it.

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I think in this situation it will not be effective for you to try and micro manage due to the remote work culture. Instead, you can try this approach:

  1. Have a joint meeting, preferably in person or voice / video, and state your concerns.
  2. Hear their side of the story. This step is important in order to make them accountable in future.
  3. Lay down the expectations and consequences clearly.
  4. Once you do this, observe if there is any change in the behavior.

    As a last resort, penalize one person (I would suggest like a reprimand or giving more work). You could even try to block SO for those particular individuals for a week.

You can always mix and match according to the situation.

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I've got a guy who's home page is Stack Overflow. His login name is "RepCap". He's the most productive person on my team. An overall policy just isn't possible. If productivity has lately dropped, don't confuse correlation with causality. A good, well trained manager wouldn't. SO might be what's keeping productivity from dropping further.

Micromanaging is always a temptation, but it's one of the most counter productive things you could possibly do. Do some more research. Ask them their opinion on the productivity problem. That will let them know you're aware and concerned, and give them a chance to be part of the solution. Working with people is always the advantageous thing to do.

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